The importance of relationships

The way we think about early childhood education has changed a lot in a relatively short space of time. It’s amazing to remember that across Australia, guaranteed access to preschool education in the year before school is a very recent initiative. The Universal Access commitment from all Australian Governments (Federal, State and Territory) was only agreed in 2009. For a long time, education was something that only happened once children started formal primary education.

Continue reading “The importance of relationships”

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For want of some data, the battle was lost

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“My dataset is better than yours” was the most common refrain heard during today’s public hearings in the Jobs for Families Child Care Package.  I was fortunate enough to attend, and while there were no nails in the coffins of this reform package, it’s certainly not looking terribly well and probably is in need of some medical attention.

I tweeted at length about it earlier this morning, so just wanted to post a quick summary of the main highlights from my point of view.

1. The impact on Indigenous children is appalling

Listening to the testimony from the SNAICC representatives was truly hard, as they respectfully but forcefully outlined the likely impact of these reforms on Indigenous children.

It’s incredible that mere weeks after the Closing the Gap report revealed our failure to meet the early childhood attendance goal, we’re seriously considering implementing reforms that would make it more difficult for Indigenous children to access ECEC.

2. Who’s got the best data?

The Government has two reports in its crosshairs – an ANU report commissioned by ECA and a Deloitte report commissioned by SNAICC – that had the temerity to suggest the reforms might be bad for many children and their families.

The Government has pointed to the reports not using the best data available. Which is understandable, given that the Government has refused to release data on crucial parts of this reform. It is madness that we are considering passing legislation that we know so little about.

3. Bureaucrats bereft, basically

The hour spent in the company of no less than six bureaucrats from the Department of Education was particularly terrifying. Answers to questions took agonisingly long to produce, and seemed in many places to be a “best guess”. Consultation processes, described by the sector as ranging from woeful to comedic, were “extensive”.

4. Want ECEC? Get a job

We at least gained crystal-clear clarity around how the Government views early childhood education. Senator McKenzie, Committee Chair, at one point left the beaten track entirely for some bizarre point about mothers going to yoga classes while their children were in childcare – on the public dollar, for shame!

For the Government, funding ECEC is viewed as welfare funds. Not funding early learning, but funding welfare, and just like every other form of welfare funding they begrudge every single cent spent on it.

The beating heart of this package (the JOBS FOR FAMILIES package, the clue is in the title) is punishing children for their employment “choices” of their families.

5. Gymnastic advocacy

Which leads to my last point. The dexterity required for people and organisations to suggest that this is a “good” package that can be made better with some minor amendments is now incredible, verging on the impossible. The litany of issues with this rushed, under-explained and data-poor legislation were recounted endlessly today. Every major part of the reform package has serious structural issues. The Activity Test. Closure of BBF services. The hourly benchmark fee. The six-hour blocks of funding. The lack of transparency over eligibility for the Child Care Subsidy.

At a certain point, when every part of the car is broken, you get rid of it and save for a new one. It’s time to throw this package out and start again.

What does this Government think the childcare sector is for?

Disappointingly, the Government continues to use the Productivity Commission to paper over its complete lack of a childcare policy. Beyond pointing out the issues and declaring war on “the dead hand of government regulation”, the childcare sector and the community in general have no idea what the Abbott Government think should happen in this area.

This week, the Assistant Minister for Education Sussan Ley may have given us a brief and tantalising spoiler. Responding to questions on what policies the Productivity Commission may propose, Ms Ley was quoted in The Australian:

“Ms Ley said “something is wrong with this picture” when asked about working parents unable to find places because they were taken by the children of parents who were not working.”

A simple statement that jibes well with the Government’s overall economic message of “lifters and leaners”, but in the context of childcare it is worth digging a little deeper on what Ms Ley may be telling us.

What does this Government think the childcare sector is for? Let’s look at the candidates.

1. The economy

The strong contender. Freeing up parents to contribute to the workforce has obvious benefits to the economy at large. This imperative has been a significant part of most countries creation of their own childcare policies and frameworks, and Australia is no different.

Australia’s economy is performing exceptionally by international standards, but workforce participation is a huge driver of growth and wealth.

2. Families

When we say families, we have to be upfront and say “mothers”. In Australia it is still women that face the greatest challenge in returning to the workforce after having children.

The benefits to families are not just about returning to work. Quality early learning programs help prepare children for formal schooling, and have the potential to remediate the effects of family instability or vulnerability. International research has demonstrated that early learning has the potential to change the destinies of families.

The childcare sector is also designed to facilitate empowerment of women to maintain their careers alongside their families – but the catch in Australia has always been that childcare services need to be affordable, accessible and of high quality. Since the deregulation of the sector in the 1990s, Australia was struggled with all three of those indicators.

3. Children

And the last on our list of candidates: children. The fundamental irony of the sector is that is directed to provide education and care to over 1 million Australian children, but the rights and needs of children are usually far down on the list of priorities.

The National Quality Framework was a strong attempt to provide a foundational expectation of quality in the outcomes for children attending childcare services. More structural reforms were needed to address the issues created by deregulation however, which were best exemplified in the spectacular collapse of ABC Learning in 2008.

Returning to Ms Ley’s statement, we can see that while the economy and workforce participation are high on the list of goals for childcare, children are not getting a look-in. She is indicating the Government would prefer that only children of working parents have the right to access childcare. This is a significant statement.

Advocates for early childhood education, including myself, view access to quality childcare as not just an economic issue, but a matter of human rights. Children have the human right to attend a quality early learning program, regardless of their socio-economic background or the current circumstances of their parents.

Australia does not currently have strong record on the upholding of children’s rights. We are currently turning ourselves into outcasts in the international community with our illegal and inhumane treatment of child asylum seekers; each day of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse reveals new horrors from Australia’s dark past of systemic failures to protect children; and child protection agencies around the country struggle to successfully keep children safe in the face of budget cuts and under-resourcing.

Approaching the sector only from the perspective of improving the economy leaves the system open to fail children – as it shockingly has in Ireland and the United States.

The importance of early childhood education, including strong childcare policies and structures, is now internationally recognised. As with the issues of asylum seekers, climate change and a host of others, Australia will fall behind the rest of the world by failing to properly invest in childcare.

But placing the rights of children at the centre of a restructuring of our approach to childcare has the primary benefit of being the right thing do by our society’s children, but the added benefits of meeting the outcomes for the economy as well.

A childcare sector that is properly funded and supported doesn’t have to pick and choose between the three outcomes listed above – it can actually choose Option 4: all of the above.

Premium early learning costs families a lot, but it may ultimately cost the sector even more

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It’s time to tackle a topic that has been an undercurrent of this blog for quite some time. Warning to regular readers – this entry will either absolutely infuriate you, or ring true.

The last week or so has seen a number of articles, primarily in Fairfax papers, on the rise of “premium” childcare.

Julia Davison, CEO of not-for-profit group Goodstart Early Learning, said:

…for-profit centres, faced with rising costs, were choosing to set up where they could charge more for ”premium” care.

‘There is much more incentive for for-profit operators to set up in those localities where you can charge a high fee and where you’re going to get a high occupancy than there is for them to set up in middle or lower economic suburbs,” she said.

This has been a steadily growing niche of the market for quite some time. They are in the business of offering “boutique” care for children of high-income families in well-heeled suburbs.

Extra services can include massage for infants, dance classes, yoga – all inclusive in a large fee.

It’s important at this point to be clear that these services are working exactly as the early childhood system in Australia allows them to. Deregulation of the sector throughout the 90s and early 2000s were designed to create exactly this kind of private model – the market has spoken.

The issue of “premium” centres, or indeed the very notion of for-profit early learning for children, is not an legal one, or an economic or financial one.

But is an ethical one.

For me, it comes down to a single question. Does every child in Australia have the right to quality, well-resourced early learning environments, or only those whose parents can afford it?

This is a question that the Australian early childhood sector will have to reflect on, and fast.

I’ve put my cards on the table a number of times, in a number of forums, but I’m happy to state my opinion clearly again now.

Profiting from early learning for Australia’s children is ethically and morally dubious.

There are undoubtedly excellent, passionate and highly-trained educators, managers and professionals working in for-profit spaces. Some of them may be reading this post, and be highly offended.

I regret that result, but I cannot swerve from the overriding position. Quality education is a human right for children, and profiting from that human right skews perspectives.

It is the reason there is a highly organised lobby organisation, the Australian Childcare Alliance, advocating for winding back of quality reforms. They eat into profit margins.

As soon as profit is a motive, it tends to become the dominant motive.

However, as I have already stated, this is the system that we work in. For a number of reasons, community not-for-profits cannot currently provide total coverage of Australia for early learning access.

That is a fact, and it also a fact that private operators meet that need for access.

(It is important at this point to say that there is no reason that these facts must be eternal. At a political level, advocacy must be directed towards appropriate funding of community not-for-profit models to meet that demand. A gargantuan task, but not impossible.)

But the new niche of premium childcare, is in altogether another league. The idea that you can access high-quality, almost “luxury” early learning for your child if you happen to live in a wealthy suburb and earn enough money should ring warning bells.

It strikes right at the heart of what early childhood education should be about – the human rights of the child.

Beyond the ultimate exclusion of children who will simply be unable to attend these services, it entrenches and actively accelerates social inequity and injustice already evident in Australia.

The Early Years Learning Framework has respect for diversity as a foundational principle. The premium model inherently excludes that. Only those from a certain “class” (let’s call this what it is) and wage bracket can attend.

Children only socialising with children who are the most fortunate, and the most well-off. Families doing the same with those families.

But possibly the most concerning of all – educators who only have to work with children from a certain background. My mind spins as I think about how that would affect someone.

Not having to navigate a wide range of diversity. Not having to form respectful and committed relationships to families experiencing hardship and disadvantage. Not putting in the weeks, months and years of effort to support children experiencing vulnerabilities.

That has the potential to skew how you view children and families at a basic level. The repercussions to early childhood practice are far-reaching.

There will be those that say I have put myself and my own practice on an ethical pedestal. It’s extremely easy to cast stones.

I accept the fact that the system is not perfect. I work for a not-for-profit organisation, but despite that there are still those who will not be able to access our services.

I acknowledge that, and commit myself to advocacy to change this inequitable system.

But to be part of an organisation that clearly and unambiguously states “these are the kind of children we want to work with” is mind-boggling to me.

The sector operates within limited funding parameters. Desperately needed funds to support all children are being invested in premium providers.

Premium early learning costs families a lot, but it may ultimately cost the sector even more.

Will the ghost of the EYQF continue to haunt the Government?

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The Coalition Government has found much to fault the previous Labor Government for, not least in its handling of early childhood education and care.

They’ve managed a tepid and limp hand clap for the creation and implementation of the National Quality Framework, which provides a national minimum standard for this work for the very first time.

Services are however, apparently “drowning in red tape” and quaking in fear from the “dead hand of government regulation”. The way the Coalition tells it, the last six years in ECEC have basically been a horror movie that the public has at last been able to walk out on.

Labor, those socialist fiends, have apparently just been throwing money at problems plaguing the sector – which presumably means that services are drowning in both red tape and money. A weird way to go.

But it appears that nothing has made the now grown-up and serious Government more disappointed than the handling of the Early Years Quality Fund.

“It was unfair,” they cried. “It was inequitable!” they wailed. “It was a lot of money we’d rather not spend on educators!” they murmured quietly on their way back to their offices.

Now, to be fair, it was unfair and it was inequitable. Please see previous blog rants for anything more on that.

But it placed the Government in the tricky position of trying to tight-walk between their burning desire to erase the last six years of history from the books, and the somewhat uncomfortable image of ripping away a small pay increase from people who work with young children.

To address this fairness and inequity, the Government has instead redirected the $300 million fund to “professional development” to the entire sector.

Well, $300 million minus the amount that had already been contracted out to organisations who, when politely asked by politicians on hundreds of thousands of dollars a year (plus entitlements and apparently any large bookshelves they feel they might need) to return the money they were going to give to some of the lowest-paid workers in Australia, shocking said “No”.

According to the Department of Education, money should be rolling out to spend on professional development pretty soon. There is not a lot of information available on requirements, processes or obligations on services concerning the money.

But a more basic question has possibly not been asked – can the Government even do what they are proposing to do?

Let’s have a look at what we know.

The EYQF was legislated – it passed the House of Representatives and the Senate and became law. This means the money allocated for it can only be used for the prescribed, legislated purpose – i.e. professional wages.

From an interview on ABC’s 730 program in December:

SUSSAN LEY: …the special account Labor created only targeted long-day-care centres and only targeted a small proportion of those.

LEIGH SALES: But you’re in charge now. You’ve got the $300 million?

SUSSAN LEY: Well, we are stuck with their legislation and I don’t propose to send the legislation back to the Parliament.

The context of the conversation was that Leigh Sales had suggested to Sussan Ley if the issue was one of equity, why not just redistribute the funding to the entire sector. In this section, Sussan Ley has suggested that this was not possible due to the nature of the legislation.

The actual legislation itself – The Early Years Quality Fund Special Account Bill 2013 – is available here and is pretty clear. It’s a riveting document with an almost spectacular lack of detail, but the key point is Section 7:

Purpose of the Early Years Quality Fund Special Account:

 

The purpose of the Early Years Quality Fund Special Account is to provide funding to approved centre based long day care services, to be used exclusively for paying remuneration, and other employment-related costs and expenses, in relation to employees in the early childhood education and care sector.

Based on the evidence, it would appear to be legislatively impossible for the Assistant Minister to do as she is proposing, which is to redirect the funding legislated in this Bill.

Yet that appears to be exactly what is occurring, with apparently no objection from either the Opposition or United Voice.

The Bill does state that funds can be used for professional wages and “for other employment-related costs and expenses, in relation to employees in the early childhood education and care sector.” This, however, hardly directly equates to professional development.

I have contacted the Assistant Minister with these questions and, based on my previous communications with her office, will receive a reply from her Department in 2-3 months.

But it perhaps needs to be asked of the other political players in ECEC why this rather substantial question on whether the Government can do what they are proposing to do has not been asked in Parliament.

Editors Note: Grateful thanks are given to Karl Hessian and Lisa Bryant for their research and assistance in this post. You can (and should) follow them both on Twitter by clicking on their names.

Where will the Government be heading on early childhood education?

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The due date for submissions to the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry into Childcare and Early Learning has now passed, and the Commission now begins the process of preparing a draft report for the Federal Government. This draft report will be available in early July.

It is worth discussing the likely paths that the Federal Government will take when the Commission delivers its final report at the end of October.

The National Quality Framework (NQF) was a national push to set baseline standards for children’s education and care. It was a Federal Labor initiative but was signed up to, and continues to be implemented by, State and Territory Governments of both sides of politics.

It set significant new standards for qualification requirements, ratios and supporting children’s learning to be phased in between 2012 and 2020.

Despite some showing some limited support during the 2013 election campaign, the Government has generally attacked the quality reforms as being an unnecessary regulatory burden and described centres as drowning “in a sea of red tape”.

The Assistant Minister for Education Sussan Ley has directly linked the implementation of the NQF to a sharp increase in fees for families.

The biggest political issue in the children’s education and care sector is affordability. Between June 2012 and June 2013 there was a 45c rise in the average hourly fee for children’s services in Australia, on top of similar increases in the preceding years.

When in Opposition, the Coalition used the fee increases to consistently attack the Labor Government.

It is clear from the most recent data that the out-of-pocket spend for families remained at a relatively low level of 8-9% of total income across all income brackets, due to Labor’s increase in the Child Care Rebate from 30% to 50%.

But due in part the byzantine nature of the subsidy system and an effective political campaign of negativity from the Opposition, the narrative on runaway fee increases struck a chord with families.

The Coalition has strived to continue that narrative in Government, firmly placing the current issues of affordability onto the Labor Party.

The Government will surely be aware however that this will only work for a short period of time. Politically, this issue will soon be owned solely by them.

The Government has so far resisted committing to any specifics on changes to the childcare sector, stating that they are waiting for the Productivity Commission to provide their final report.

But when it comes, the Government will need to provide a clear and detailed response to the issues facing the sector.

The key funding lever for the Government is the Child Care Benefit and Child Care Rebate subsidies (both introduced by the Howard Government).

They may seem completely unconnected, but recent refusals by the Government to provide industry assistance to Holden and SPC Ardmona may actually provide us with some insight into their thinking on the CCB/CCR subsidy.

The decision to deny assistance packages to those companies has demonstrated that the Government is prepared to make tough decisions on spending taxpayer money to support businesses.

The childcare sector is currently a majority private enterprise, with private operators making over two-thirds of the sector. The rest are run as not-for-profit community services.

The CCB/CCR subsidy essentially acts as indirect industry assistance to the operators of children’s services. Approximately $5 billion a year is spent on that subsidy – a not insignificant amount of money. Is it possible that the Government would consider lowering that amount of subsidy?

This would come at a huge political cost. In the June quarter 2013 over 742,000 families accessed some form of formal childcare.

Having spent their time drawing attention to the affordability issue as a political weapon, the onus is now on the Government to take steps to address it.

To complicate matters, they have instructed the Productivity Commission that any suggestions they put forward must be within “current funding parameters”. This leaves them with only a few options.

Either the CCB/CCR subsidy is lowered, a politically “courageous” decision as Sir Humphrey might put it, or the quality standards currently being implemented by the National Quality Framework are drastically rolled back.

Given the political considerations, the second option is far more likely. Which puts a lot of the Government’s statements in the media into context.

The focus on “over-regulation” and “red tape” in the media since the implementation on the NQF, and its intense focus over recent weeks, can be seen as laying groundwork for a large-scale downgrading of those reforms.

They can be sold not as a cut on quality outcomes for children, but as a cut on red tape.

This would be a disastrous outcome for Australia’s children. Advocates for quality education and care have stressed the importance of taking early learning seriously as in investment in Australia’s future prosperity.

It would be shame indeed if political expediency hampers a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the Productivity Commission Inquiry to recommend sweeping structural reforms to quality and affordability – without choosing one over the other.

EYQF ends, as it was always going to, in complete farce

Ending months of speculation, Assistant Minister for Education Sussan Ley today announced that the Government would seek to redirect $300 million committed to the Early Years Quality Fund into “professional development” for the entire sector.

“…this new programme will specifically target professional development opportunities that will provide improved access to childcare and early learning career paths for educators.

“This will in turn help retain staff in the sector and meet the improved education standards required under the National Quality Framework.

“This is shaping up to be the biggest public investment in professional development in the childcare sector’s history. I encourage all operators to recognise this once in a generation opportunity to improve the skills of some of our lowest paid workers.”

An ignoble end to an inequitable and hastily cobbled-together election year throw-of-the-dice.

I have advocated against this fund since it was first publicly announced in April. At the time, I stated:

I believe that this funding package has the potential to disastrously undermine the Early Childhood Education sector and the campaign for professional wages.

So here we find ourselves. It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to be proved right.

An independent report from PricewaterhouseCoopers has slammed the Fund. This will undoubtedly be read by supporters of the fund as unfair and political.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) have had an ongoing commitment to examining and reporting on the early childhood education and care sector, and have been overwhelmingly progressive. They even advocated to Government a “Gonski-style” funding model of ECEC, where children are funded at a base level and loadings are applied for children experiencing vulnerabilities.

Hardly a Conservative mouthpiece.

The report accuses the Government and United Voice of using the Fund as a thinly-veiled means to drive up union membership. Hardly a huge scandal that a Union would seek to increase its membership, but the use of taxpayer funds to do so is obviously of concern.

From my point of view, I believe that the Union have in the majority of cases acted in the best interests of some of the lowest-paid people in this country.

It is however, absolutely true that in some cases the “marketing” of the EYQF was handled badly by United Voice. PwC claim to have evidence of union delegates harassing services to become members, or they would not receive money from the Fund.

I will not give specific details, but I can confirm from my own experience that in some cases that absolutely did happen.

(Not, I hasten to add, in the ACT where the United Voice branch has always worked collaboratively and effectively with the ECEC workforce).

Some in the sector have raised the point that surely it’s good if more educators join the Union? Absolutely. But holding a bucket of money over their heads and essentially telling them “join us or you don’t get it” is immoral and disgusting behaviour.

The structural issues with the sector mean that Union membership is not going to follow the same trajectory as teachers, or nurses. The overwhelming influence of market forces, and a much lower level of community respect means that there is not going to be some huge upsurge in membership.

Particularly when a Labor Government announces a fund that will only to go to less than half of the sector, and is clearly aimed at keeping private operators out.

Not only that, but then splitting the fund into two buckets (at the very last minute) was an absolutely outrageous and incomprehensible decision. Making an already inequitable policy even more inequitable? That takes a level of political incompetence I can barely conceive of.

And this is the fundamental problem with the entire Fund, and why it was always going to end in this farce. No matter what the intention, no matter what the strategy, no matter what the “long-term plan”, funding only 40% of the sector was a despicable and grossly unfair policy decision.

At the centre of all these policy discussions are lowly-paid educators, the majority of whom will now be rightly furious. They have spend the last 7 months being systematically treated like fools, by Labor and Liberal politicians.

From my point of view (for what it’s worth), all of the contracts, conditional or otherwise, should have been honoured by Tony Abbott. That was the election commitment.

The Government will spend the money anyway, on some nebulous “professional development” fund. No further details, of course. I particularly like the notion that the Government would quite like those will be getting money through EYQF contracts to pay it back, pretty please. That should go extremely well.

I actually completely agree with taking the entire $300 million and spending it on the entire sector. It’s what should have been done in the first place.

But the new Government has demonstrated that, just as with the previous Government, they are prepared to play low politics with ECEC.

The focus now has to shift to the Productivity Commission Inquiry, and the Wage Equity Case.

Let the EYQF stand as a reminder to advocates for the sector to be careful what you wish for – and to remember that forgoing our principles of equity because a small bucket of money appears will always end as the Fund has ended today. In embarrassing farce.

Terms of reference should be sounding alarm bells

On Sunday November 17, the Federal Government formally launched and announced the terms of reference for the Productivity Commission’s  “Inquiry into Child Care and Early Childhood Learning”.

Throughout the Labor Government’s six-year term in office, the Coalition opposition regularly attacked their changes to the early childhood education and care (childcare) sector

Labor convinced all states and territories to sign up, through COAG, to the National Quality Framework (NQF) for early childhood education and care (ECEC). This was a significant achievement, and was an attempt to unify disparate and complicated state-based regulation and oversight.

The principle objectives of the NQF were a concern for the heavyweight players in the ECEC sector, the for-profit private operators. Lower staff-to-child ratios and higher qualification requirements for early childhood educators would directly eat in to their potential profits.

The Coalition gladly took up the banner for the private operators, running ridiculous lines on “the burden of red tape” and “the dead hand of Government regulation”.

For those who take early childhood education seriously, and not as an excuse to make a quick buck, the NQF has drastically streamlined and reduced regulation and paperwork.

This is clearly evident to those of us who managed services in the wildly divergent and complicated system of the National Childcare Accreditation Council, pre-2012.

As promised in the lead up to the 2013 Election, the newly elected Coalition Government will be tasking the Productivity Commission to look into the state of ECEC in Australia. It will report back in October 2014.

Despite assurances from the Government that they support the objectives of the NQF in regards to children’s learning, the Government’s stated intentions in the terms of reference should be ringing major alarm bells for families, educators and early childhood education advocates.

The terms of reference and scope of the inquiry clearly demonstrate that the Government is only viewing the ECEC sector through the very narrow and damaging prism of workforce participation and economic imperatives.

They state it clearly themselves: “We want to ensure that Australia has a system that provides a safe, nurturing environment for children, but which also meets the working needs of families.”

The current Government longs for the days when “daycare” was provided by “nice old ladies” for the love of it.

With the greatest of respect to nice old ladies, those days are over.

Early childhood education and care is about more than a “safe, nurturing environment”. It is a place where children can learn and play socially and safely, developing the skills that will set them up for success in future learning.

Where early childhood education and early learning are mentioned at all in the Government’s announcement, it is far down the list on priorities.

To take a brief look at the section ‘the current and future need for childcare’, “hours parents work” ranks No. 1 on the list.

The “needs of vulnerable or at-risk children”? No. 11.

Could there be a clearer indication of this Government’s priorities?

The Government has also tasked the Productivity Commission to only offer recommendations “within current funding parameters”, effectively ruling out any increase in funding to the sector.

With a sector beset by wages and conditions that should be a national scandal, working with children at the most important stage of their development, this is unacceptable.

The Government’s repeated mantra on “red tape” is also a huge concern. Clear regulation and oversight is essential to the safety and wellbeing of children.

You need only look at systems in the United States and Ireland to see where a desire to not have “unnecessary bureaucracy” has directly endangered the safety, or even the lives, of children.

The inquiry will also be examining the ability of the ECEC sector to meet the “needs of today’s families and today’s economy”.

I am always interested in how it is the community who has to be more “flexible” to business interests.

I’m not sure where the Government’s entreaties to the business community to be more “flexible” to the needs of families are.

Yes, the growing amount of shift and casual work is undoubtedly causing issues for some families (although, as is always the case with this argument, no-one actually has any data to prove it).

But why do we automatically leap to the assumption that the community systems around that issue must change and adapt? Why is there not a national discussion on the business community’s role in supporting families?

The Government’s determination to work within the current market-based system is disappointing, but unsurprising. This was a key “win” for the Howard Government, turning over the education and wellbeing of Australia’s children to profiteering private operators.

The deference to market-based solutions to community and social issues is so stupid as to be hardly worth rebutting.

All that needs to be said is that if the market was capable of providing this “service” to the community in an adequate and cost-effective way, why on earth are there two generous and expensive subsidies available to families (the Child Care Benefit and the Child Care Rebate)?

The inquiry does have the potential to identify systemic issues with the sector, which advocates have been identifying for decades.

Any reasonable examination of the current structure of ECEC can only discover that it is fundamentally flawed. This could be extremely positive for the sector, as the Government can hardly ignore the report it asked for.

The Coalition (and even the Labor Government, who lacked the imagination to fundamentally shake-up the system) have always viewed turning the sector over to the private providers as positive.

It is entirely likely that the Productivity Commission will actually report that it was a huge error that has fundamentally disadvantaged children, families and the community for years.

There will already be a million eyes rolling as they read this, but the fundamental question needs to be asked. Do we want to live in an economy? Or do we want to live in a society?

So ECEC can increase workforce participation. Great. To what end?

This may come as a shock, but I don’t carry out my work as a teacher with children to incrementally increase Australia’s GDP output.

I can think of a number of reasons why ECEC is vital to our community: setting children up to succeed in school and life; lifting children and families out of generational vulnerability; closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

Preparing children to be good little contributors to the economy is not high up on my list.

Sunday’s announcement needs to be a clarion call to arms for early childhood education advocates. The lines have been drawn.

Navigating partisans, politicians and dimwits: Advocacy, Australian-style!

It was a huge honour to be invited to speak at Community Child Care Co-operative’s 35th Birthday event, alongside such incredible early childhood “rockstars” as Alma Fleet, Eva Cox, Lisa Bryant, Anthony Semann and more. For those on Twitter, check out the hashtag #CCCCis35 to check out some of the incredible moments from the day.

The post below is my prepared presentation at the event – there were some minor changes on the day which reflected what I had heard and been inspired by in the previous presentations.

I would also like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we gather today, the Cadigal People of the Eora Nation. I would also like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land I call home and work from, the Ngunnawal People.

I’d like to wish Community Child Care Co-operative a very Happy 35th Birthday! It is a great honour to be invited by them to speak with you today. As CCCC has been such a positive and powerful force for advocacy in NSW and around Australia, to be invited to speak on that topic is somewhat nerve-wracking!

It is also a huge privilege to be speaking alongside such incredible educators, activists and leaders in the sector. I’ve worked with some of you professionally in the past, some of you I’ve followed through your writing, and some of you I’ve had long arguments with on Twitter.

It was particularly exciting to meet the wonderful Lisa Bryant (@lisajbryant) in person today, who has been a regular social media sparring partner! The early childhood community on social media is growing each day, which can only be a fantastic development.

The ability of social networking and online forums, such as Early Childhood Australia’s NQS Forum, are invaluable to the ongoing discussions, disagreements and arguments that will be shaping the future of our sector.

The late Christopher Hitchens once said that “Time spent arguing is, oddly enough, almost never wasted.”

So I’d like to take this opportunity to thank those in this room that I have spent valuable time “discussing” the finer points of early childhood policy with.

My talk today is focused on policy and politics – hopefully it will be a little more interesting than that sounds!

I set up my blog to explore the nexus between children, policy and politics – obviously particularly focused on the early childhood education and care sector.

As a sector, I don’t think we’ve successfully explored or acted in that space. With my usual arrogance and desire to hear my own voice, I figured I’d have a go.

This is not to denigrate the exceptional work of advocates and activists in this room, or advocacy organisations like CCCCNSW, who do incredible work.

But we need to acknowledge that our advocacy has not been as successful, or as strategic, as we need it to be.

Galling though it may be, we also need to acknowledge that the private operators do advocacy better.

They’re kicking our backsides. The Australian Childcare Alliance has a full-time lobbyist at Parliament House.

They’ve cultivated a close relationship with the new Assistant Minister for Education, Sussan Ley. A close-enough relationship that there is a more-than-passing resemblance to each other’s press releases.

The political agenda on children’s early education in this country is shaped by that advocacy.

So I have worked to focus my advocacy on policy, and politics.

My drive for advocacy has grown as my career has grown. My first love is working directly with children, but my career has slowly moved me away from day-to-day work with them. First as a Centre Director, and now as the ACT Territory Manager for Goodstart Early Learning.

The face-to-face work with children is crucial, it’s everything – and I salute those of you here today who are still in those roles.

From the first time I took on a Director’s role, I felt a powerful responsibility to advocate for the work of those in my team who were doing that tricky and complex work every day as Team Leaders, or assistant educators.

For me, this started with the Big Steps campaign. Although Directors are certainly not paid enough for the work they do, I felt that the privilege of the higher pay-rate, the ability to manage my own time, the greater ability with which I could access professional development and networking opportunities, conferred on me an ethical responsibility to advocate.

This has been particularly clear to me in my current role as an Area Manager – particularly in the new world of the National Quality Framework.

The Framework ask a lot of Centre Directors – they are legally responsible for their centres, with all the pressures and challenges that entails.

Those of us in roles such as mine, without legislative responsibilities and with no direct day-to-day, ongoing work with children, are in what my Manager and professional mentor gleefully describes as “made-up jobs”.

I am not in the ECEC National Law. The Government has not deemed my job to be essential to the successful education and care of Australia’s children.

I’m going to assume there are people in similar positions in the room today – don’t worry, I won’t make you put your hands up!

What I would ask you to do is to reflect critically on your roles – my challenge to you is if you are not advocating tirelessly for those who are carrying out the day-to-day teaching and education with children, you are not doing your job.

I am fortunate to work with an incredible team of Centre Directors in the ACT, and I’d like to just acknowledge their professionalism and work in their communities of children, families and educators.

I reflect every day on the privileges that my “made-up” job entails me, and if I cannot justify my work to that group of incredible women at the end of the day – then it’s not worth me being there.

For me, this means that above and beyond my day-to-day work, of which advocacy is certainly a part, it also means advocating above and beyond my 38 hours a week.

Anything less I could not ethically justify.

My particular focus with advocacy is politics. Political advocacy has always been one of the most common, and most effective, forms of advocacy as it is targeted at those who actually make the decisions.

My interest in politics stemmed largely from growing up as a teenager in the Howard years. I don’t want to get into a big discussion around Right vs. Left, but those 11 years left a deep impression on me and many in my generation.

The issue that particularly engaged me was refugee policy.

It seemed incredible to me, as a naive sixteen-year old, that we could actually make laws and decisions that treated people so cruelly.

That women and men working comfortably in offices in one of the most prosperous nations on Earth could sign documents and make telephone calls that would directly imperil the lives of people fleeing persecution that I could not even imagine.

Now, being from Canberra for the last 15 years, it’s very easy to reduce politics to bureaucracy – to people passing paper around with little-to-no impact on the real lives of people.

Our politics and policies on refugees and asylum seekers helped me realise that politics and policy have a direct impact on every one of our lives, whether we know it or not.

Just as those decisions can directly impact people fleeing persecution from outside Australia, decisions made in Canberra have a direct and deep impact on the work we do, and the communities we do it in.

They are the frameworks we put around our society.

The connection with early childhood policy took a bit longer to come to me, but since then it has informed my work as a professional in this sector.

It particularly “clicked” for me when I came to a single, clear realisation about our work.

Children’s education and care policy in this country is not about children.

It is about workforce participation.

The childcare sector in Australia is entirely set up, resourced and funded to ensure that families are at work and contributing to the economy.  This fact informs every part of our sector, every challenge and every frustration.

Australia’s entire policy focus on early childhood education, on both sides of politics, Labor and Liberal, and even in far-left parties like the Green, has nothing to do with children.

This almost made sense in the 1970s, when getting women into the workforce wasn’t just a social and moral challenge, but a practical one.

Women with children were expected to remain at home.

The strides that have been made in gender equality since then are due in no small part to the creation of a formal, regulated and affordable childcare sector.

Greater numbers of women in the workplace have forced organisations to slowly (in some cases, extremely slowly) adapt to the 21st Century.

The childcare sector played a large role in that, and is overwhelmingly positive. But more than 40 years later, the paradigm needs to shift.

It’s no longer enough for us to accept that the early childhood education and care sector is just there to “babysit” children so their parents can contribute to the economy.

The latest figures from DEEWR tell us that for the first time in Australia’s history, over a million children are now in some form of ECEC. This is a staggering amount, and represents a major challenge for Australian society.

At the beginning of my talk I mentioned our friend Judith Sloan. It’s important to analyse her perspective on ECEC beyond her ridiculous comments about “dimwits”.

Her article points to the underlying tension of our work. The notion of universal access early childhood education for all children is a direct attack on conservative “family values”.

The conservative argument is essentially that the best place for a child, any child, is in a stable home with Mum and Dad (certainly not two Dads, or two Mums, but we’ll save that for another time).

I never attended childcare when I was a young child. I still did well in school, have a University degree (admittedly not from a Uni that would meet with Judith’s approval) and have a great job in a sector I love.

My parents had no degrees in early childhood education, but helped set my brother and I up to work hard in our studies (primary, secondary and tertiary) and in our work.

My story would provide “evidence” for conservatives that access to early childhood programs is unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer money.

However, I was extremely fortunate to have two well-educated, stable and loving parents with no mental health issues or other vulnerabilities.

I was given every chance to be successful, even before I was in school.

But we are part of a society where not every child has those same opportunities. Some children will grow up in challenging and disruptive environments, where their parents are suffering immense challenges of their own.

Advocating for universal access to ECE is about ensuring that any child, no matter the circumstances of their home life, can be given the same head start I was given.

So I believe that we are getting near a crossroads – I would actually like us to be at that crossroads now, but unfortunately I think we’re a way off even from that.

Brain research consistently tells us that the first five years are absolutely crucial. Long-term studies like the Australian Early Development Index and the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children also point to those formative years as the building blocks for later life.

With a million children now accessing some form of childcare in those foundational five years, it is no longer good enough for our sector to just be about workforce participation.

We have the incredible opportunity to be improving children’s lives right here and now, and in so doing drastically lower their risk of experiencing vulnerability throughout the rest of their lives.

Children who struggle early will continue to struggle, and will find it harder to engage in formal learning and study, increasing the challenges they will face in employment and housing.

These foundational years all take place before children set foot in a school – and yet our entire education focus for children, from a policy and political perspective, only really begins in Year 1 of school.

So is Australia ready to leave behind the paradigm of workforce participation, and adopt a truly child-centred approach to ECEC?

Yes, the majority of states and territories have some form of funded preschool, but it’s telling that over the last 2-3 years of public debate around David Gonski’s school reforms, preschool and long day care was conspicuously absent.

I’ll be blunt – that our sector was not represented in those policy discussions points to a significant failure on our part, and the need to significantly raise our levels of advocacy.

This was our chance to raise our voices – the challenges we as a society will be helping children to face throughout their childhood years can, and MUST, be addressed in early childhood.

And yet, nothing.

I look at the recent election, and the only time early childhood education and care was mentioned was in terms of fees, waiting lists, planning permits and workforce participation.

Again, this represents a significant failure of our advocacy.

I’m sorry to be the person at the birthday party who brings the tone down, and I understand I won’t be getting many invites to other parties after today!

But if we are to take our advocacy leadership seriously, we need to acknowledge our challenge.

There are advocates in this room who have done incredible work, who have spoken and written and banged their fists on tables around the country. CCCC has done incredible work.

But despite all of that, we have not shifted majority opinion. We have not changed enough minds.

The debate in Australia, beyond these walls today, is not about universal access. It’s not about children’s rights. It’s not about the potential for ECEC to lift children out of structural disadvantage.

It’s about fees. It’s about freezing the CCR. It’s about “flexible opening hours”.

As leaders in our sector, and as advocates for children, we have to do better. It is unacceptable to do anything less.

We know the importance of what we do. We know the challenges, we know the structural inequities that stand in our way. It’s no use convincing the people in this room.

Our advocacy has to go beyond that.

We also know that if we are serious about improving outcomes for children; if we are serious about upholding children’s rights and their voice in our society; then we have to be the ones who are raising our voices.

If people aren’t listening, it’s our job to make them listen. Are we using every opportunity to raise the profile of our work, demonstrate our professionalism and inform people of our potential?

Are we creating opportunities to do those things?

So that is our challenge. I am not doing enough. None of us are.

Until we are having debates in cafes and offices around the best way to fund true universal access to early childhood education for children, we aren’t doing enough.

Until a journalist in a national, televised debate asks a candidate running for Prime Minister what their plans are to use ECEC to improve outcomes for children at a foundational level, we have not done enough.

Until the right of children to fully and freely participate in quality early learning programs is a national priority, and embracing that is a cornerstone of our education, family and health policies, we have not done enough.

So, enjoy the day and particularly enjoy the cocktail party tonight. Because tomorrow, we’ve got some work to do.

I’ve talked a lot about what we’re not getting right, despite the hard work of people in this room today. What are my thoughts on the next steps?

Above all, be fearless. Have arguments. Speak your truth.

Through my limited reach as a writer and participant on social media, I have forcefully and doggedly argued views that have infuriated and aggravated friends and colleagues.

A big one was the Early Years Quality Fund.

A fund that would only reach 40% of the sector, would only last two years and would be awarded on essentially a “first-come, first-served” basis?

This was a deeply flawed funding model, and in my view offensive to me, and those I work with.

I publicly stated that I could not ethically support this Fund, and criticised United Voice for agreeing to it.

In the lead-up to the election, I also publicly voiced my criticism of the Labor Government for their implementation of the National Quality Framework.

This was at a time when the sector was being encouraged to almost band together and cheerlead for Labor.

My firm belief is that the Labor Government categorically failed to implement the NQF in a way that would ensure its survival and growth.

It was a once-in-a-generation chance to change the conversation on Childcare. Labor didn’t do it well enough.

Overlaying the requirements of the National Quality Framework without a plan to address the structural inequities of the system, including the sexist discrimination of low wages, was always going to be problematic.

Are they to be commended for at least attempting? Yes, but I cannot and will not allow partisanship to silence criticism where it is due.

The case for early childhood education reform is a generally “progressive” issue. But this does not mean that advocates for early childhood should just support and “cheerlead” for Labor.

As has been shown all too clearly with refugee policy, Labor is in many ways only a progressive party by comparison with the Coalition.

To put it clearly, blindly supporting Labor without criticism as the only progressive party in town means that if you are, you are now supporting sending pregnant women legally seeking asylum to a tent in Papua New Guinea.

It amazed me the amount of my progressive friends and colleagues who had joined the campaign for Labor, who were suddenly quiet about the issue of asylum seekers after the PNG “solution”.

They had been extremely happy to loudly berate and criticise the Liberal Party, quite rightly, for their policies.

Labor supporters who had criticised the undermining of Julia Gillard by Kevin Rudd and his supporters, suddenly donning Kevin 13 shirts after a quick change-up in the Labor leadership team quite soon before an election.

If the price of joining up with a political party is silence, it is too high.

Advocates should be fearless and furious with criticism. Advocacy should be targeted at politicians, without being tied to a single party.

Advocacy should be about our sector, not political victories for others.

I don’t like to give advice, but I would urge my colleagues in advocacy to remember that.

The issues surrounding our sector – feminism, contested rights between children and parents, the role of education in the social good – demand that we be strategic and smart with our advocacy.

Tying ourselves to a political party or a political ideology is a bad idea.

Another bad idea is to paraphrase Mark Twain, but as he very nearly said: “Loyalty to progressing the early childhood education sector: ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.”

Advocacy is not just writing, not just attending rallies or forums. The Early Years Learning Framework encourages educators and teachers to look at every moment with a child, or group of children, as an opportunity to learn.

In exactly the same way, every moment in our day-to-day work is an opportunity to advocate for our professionalism, and the professionalism of the sector as a whole.

Every time you greet a family at the door, we could be advocating. Every time we have a pedagogical discussion with an educator, we could be advocating.

But I firmly believe we also have an obligation, and imperative, to advocate at that wider level – at the level of policy.

The Italian pedagogue and President of Reggio Children Carla Rinaldi encourages advocates to be a “megaphone for children’s voices”.

Aim it at Parliament House.

What made you angry? What frustrated you? When was your voice silenced? What made you want to yell at the TV screen, or your computer?

Write about it. Get it out there. Contact your local MP.

But do not fall victim of the “us versus them”, or “Left vs. Right”, or “Labor vs. Liberal”. As soon as we subsume our advocacy to that of a political ideology, we are no longer advocating. We’re advertising.

It can seem like a huge and uphill battle when you look at where the national discussion now.

Imagine having an election fought on the principles of children’s human rights and the magnifying and uplifting power of early childhood education.

It seems like at the moment as a people we are more focused on having cheap, available childcare.

But, fellow advocates, just remember, as Jon Stewart said, “You have to remember one thing about the will of the people: it wasn’t that long ago that we were swept away by the Macarena.”

Thank you very much.

Thanks again to Community Child Care Co-operative for inviting me to speak. You can check out their website at http://ccccnsw.org.au/.

Wage rises for educators now in doubt

The AFR is reporting that the incoming Abbott Government will be “redistributing” funds from the Early Years Quality Fund and a similar wage-increase fund in the aged care sector.

The Coalition may reallocate the childcare fund, which was set up to distribute any taxpayer-subsidised pay rises for childcare workers.

It is unclear whether any childcare workers had received the wage top-up already because the Labor government was late to release the eligibility rules for the two-year wages subsidy, which was due to end in 2015.

The Coalition’s childcare policy states it would honour any contracts already made and the remaining funds would be kept in the government’s childcare budget.

It is entirely unclear what this will actually mean. No money has started rolling out to services, although some contracts have been signed.

Some services had received “conditional approval”, and the incoming Government has not made clear whether they will be honoured.

UPDATE: Early Childhood Australia have released a statement calling on the incoming Government to honour the funding commitments in the EYQF. The statement is worth reading in full, and highlights the inequities and divisions inherent in the Fund.

In order to be eligible for the fund, organisations were required to have an Enterprise Agreement (EA) in place with their employees. The creation of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ did not sit well with a sector that takes its ethics and commitment to social equity very seriously.  There was considerable dissension and concern in the early childhood sector, as demonstrated by the submissions to the Senate Inquiry Submissions on the Legislation.